Women in Comedy II: Improv/Sketch | Bleader

Women in Comedy II: Improv/Sketch


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In a recent blog post I asked: Why don't more women become comedians? While performers such as Margaret Cho and Tina Fey are as successful as top male comedians, there remains a significant gender gap in the business, particularly in stand-up. Over the past 12 months at Zanies, arguably the most active stand-up club in Chicago, there were 5 different female headliners and 67 different male headliners. The current teams at iO, arguably the most active local improv theater, include 93 women and 176 men.

I decided to find the reasons for the gap. Here's part two of a two-part survey I took of local female comedians. The first part focused on women in stand-up; the women featured here are in improv/sketch comedy, including Susan Messing, Emily Wilson, Jet Eveleth, and Molly Hall; producers Charna Halpern (iO), Anne Libera (Second City), Jennifer Estlin (Annoyance Theatre).


4326/1247859834-susanmessing_edited.jpgSUSAN MESSING, 45
Years in the biz: 22 (including stand-up)
Where to see her: Annoyance Theatre, Thu 10:30 PM (Messing With a Friend); iO, Sundays 10:30 PM (Children of a Lesser God)

1. Why did you become a comedian? I don't think I started out thinking I was going to become a comedian. I was a theater major at Northwestern and was a fairly mediocre actress, albeit I seemed to get cast primarily in comedies. Comedy certainly wasn't the focus in my mind. After school, I stumbled into iO, got hooked on long-form improvisation, and comedy became the result.

2. What challenges have you faced as a female performer? I don't think that I had too many challenges as a female performer. Frankly, when I started, there were so few women, that to have a girl on your team was a decent coup. My struggles were primarily in becoming a strong performer, and thankfully I had people like Charna [Halpern] and Mick [Napier] making sure that I didn't blame men for any misfortune onstage. Years later, when I became a teacher, I was actually surprised that so many women had issues with the men onstage. The first class I taught, per Mick's request, was a "lady" class with Jodi Lennon on having the women make stronger choices. It's kind of a moot point here in Chicagowhen I deal with students from other places, I kind of nip that excuse in the bud from the beginning.

3. Why don't more women become comedians? As someone who fell into comedy, I don't want to speak for anyone else. Perhaps there isn't a little box to check that says "lady comedian" on those correspondence courses, next to "medical transcriber" or "heating and air technician."

(Susan was my pick for Best Improviser in the Reader's Best Of Chicago 2008 issue.)

bc17/1247859303-emilywilson_edited.jpgEMILY WILSON, 33
Years in the biz: 10
Where to see her: Second City, Tue-Thu 8 PM, Fri-Sat 8 and 11 PM, Sun 7 PM (America: All Better!); iO, Tue 10 PM (Ginger Snaps)

1. Why did you become a comedian? I became a comedian because I was an ugly kid and I learned early on: make 'em laugh with you not at you.

2. What challenges have you faced as a female performer? I think women are underutilized in the improv/sketch world, so we have to fight harder to get opportunities. I had to form my own groups and write my own shows because I wanted more stage time. With only one or two women per improv team or stage in this city, there's not a lot of time to grow and build your chops. That being said, I don't buy into this bullshit about women being less funny than men. When I play with a group, whether it's all men or all women, I am just a person. Not a gender. And I assume if I'm up there, I'm funny. And if i'm not, it's because I sucked that night, not because I have a uterus.

3. Why don't more women become comedians? In the past five years I have stumbled upon countless articles about whether or not women are funny. I can't believe this is even a question. It's so ignorant and offensive. (How many articles have you read about why men are stupid?) Why the fuck wouldn't we be funny? Funny is not about gender, funny is about life. About the ability to observe life, your own and others, in an honest way and laugh at it. How can that be confined to men? Women are also cruel and sad and mean and strong. Women can go to space and build buildings. We poop and pee, just like men! Now, to answer the question. I don't think women avoid becoming comedians. I just think that because we have to work twice as hard for half as much, some of us get tired. I mean, look at the ignorance and overt sexism we're facing. There are nationally publicized articles about whether or not our breasts make it difficult for us to tell a joke. Give me a break.

9224/1247859370-jeteveleth_edited.jpgJET EVELETH, 31
Years in the biz: 9 (including stand-up)
Where to see her: iO, Mon 8:30 PM (Armando Diaz Experience), Tue 10:30 PM (the Reckoning), Sat 8 PM (the Deltones); Schubas, Sun 9:15 PM (Your Sunday Best, stand-up)

1. Why did you become a comedian? At a young age I learned that pretending to be someone else made people laugh. My siblings and I were constantly creating plays and home movies, living for skit night at school. Now every night is skit night.

2. What challenges have you faced as a female performer? There are times I'd like to play more brutish characters, but they don't resonate with an audience. However, the same character played by a 200-pound man kills. Or in a physical scene, I have to check to make sure a boob doesn't pop out—it's hard to get the comedy back after that. In all honesty any type of sex appeal can serve as a distraction perhaps because the need to procreate is more primal than our need to create social bonds through laughter. So on stage I try to dress more neutrally because I want my comedy to come first. But overall women have the advantage of playing half the population more realistically than a man ever could. There are sprightly children, washed-up starlets, and neurotic bag ladies just waiting to be played by someone with a feminine touch. Sometimes the tendency is to play more masculine to contend with the fellas or to play up the feminine to stand out. I try to see it as a conversation with the audience, not trying to play masculine or feminine, just trying to be me.

3. Why don't more women become comedians? It is difficult for me to answer because I am a woman who became a comedian. We could also be asking why aren't there more men in dance? I often wonder how Baryshnikov feels in the female-dominated world of dance. Gender-based behaviors, lack of exposure, social conditioning? In the book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, Robert Provine runs a number of sociological studies that show women laugh two to three times more often at men than men do at women in conversations. Women also list a sense of humor as an important attribute in personal ads, where men seek more physical attributes in women. I believe that in time, when one truly masters his or her craft, concerns with being the minority fade.

0afe/1247859395-mollyhall.jpgMOLLY HALL, 28
Years in the biz: 10
Where to see her: iO, Wed 8 PM (Felt).

1. Why did you become a comedian? It was never my goal to be an improviserI have always been amazed by performers that moved here for the Chicago comedy scene. I went to school as a theater major, and since my family is from Chicago, my brother and I decided to take a different improv class every summer. Once I graduated, I figured I'd just try it out for real. Here I am, still loving it, seven years later.

2. What challenges have you faced as a female performer? I think the biggest challenge is being classified as a female performer rather than just a performer. I want to be the best teammate I can be. Male or female, I just want to play. I'm sure there are challenges I face that I dont even realize I'm facing—stereotypes that exist, etc. I don't actively try to fight them, but I don't try to feed into them either, it just wouldnt occur to me. Perhaps it is because the whole point of improvisation is to support and be a part of something bigger than yourself, or maybe Ive just been lucky, but I dont think of myself as being any different from the men on my teams.

3. Why don't more women become comedians? Maybe Im naive, or maybe it is the art form itself, but I cannot think of a good reason why a woman would not want to become an improviser that would be any different from a man. Maybe women have stage fright or a fear of failure. Maybe they know it is a hard way to make a living. Maybe it just never occurred to them. Or maybe they just prefer to watch. Whatever the reason, I sincerely hope it has nothing to do with their gender.


0a3b/1247865402-charnahalpern_edited.jpgCHARNA HALPERN, 57
Cofounder/Manager, iO
Years in the biz: 27

1. Why did you pursue a career in the comedy business? It didn't start as a pursuit for me. I fell into it. I was a high school teacher in a school for juvenile delinquents. I was invited to a friend's brother's party. It turned out the brother was friends with folks who were on the main stage at Second City. I met Tim Kazurinsky that night. We were both a little drunk and began doing bits, and he thought I was funny. He called Joyce Sloan at Second City and got me an audition. While on stage during the audition, it quickly became apparent to me that since I knew nothing about improvisation, I had no right to be up there. (I remember laughing when they told me to do three characters through the door.) But I decided that since I was up there, I may as well try. I definitely had the right spirit—I was fearless but I didn't have the training. I remember the biggest laugh I got was when I bounded off the stage, knowing that I'd failed miserably, and said, "Did I get the job?" It was still so much fun to be up there that I decided it could be a fun career and I wanted to invest the time to learn how to improvise. I studied with Jo Forsberg and Paul Sills and started performing in an improv troupe. It was then that I met David Shepherd [iO cofounder]. I had read that he tried to start ImprovOlympic [the original name of iO] in Canada, and I convinced him to let me start it in Chicago. After a couple of years running ImprovOlympic, I met Del Close and the rest is history.

2. What challenges have you observed for female performers? Little girls are raised to be quiet and feminine, and guys are raised to play rough and be boisterous. So when new females students come to class, they will sometimes allow themselves to get steamrolled by guys. They may be hesitant to make moves, sometimes thinking the guys won't notice. If this isn't addressed early on, they start to feel like victims on stage. They start to blame the men for their work, instead of taking responsibility for their choices. If they realize from the start that they can make the same choices as men and be just as bold, they will be strong players. But to be honest, I've seen a lot of woman steamroll men on stage as well. Now that little girls are playing soccer, volleyball, and basketball in schools, I expect the next generation of women to not have the same problems.

3. Why don't more women become comedians? I get this question a lot and I hate it. When iO first started [in the early '80s], we were called the Homo Club because there were two or three women for the longest time. But now I have more women than ever. Virgin Daquiri is an all-women team. Children of a Lesser God—all women. Holly Laurent and Jet Eveleth are on the Reckoning—one of the greatest long-form troupes. Chicago just hosted Lisa Lampanelli and Ellen Degeneres [Just for Laughs festival]. Tina Fey is the hottest star on TV, iO is run by me, Second City was put on the map by Joyce Sloan, its original producer, and is now run by ladies like Allison Riley, Beth Kligerman, and Robin Hammond. The Annoyance's success is largely due to Jennifer Estlin. There are many ladies in comedy. Has it been difficult for ladies in the past? You bet. Why? Lots of reasons. Hiring practices by places like Second City, who in the beginning only used two women in a cast. And the way society once perceived women: they were in the kitchen and not in the board room. There were prejudices against a woman being balls-out and saying what's on her mind.

I'll tell you the honest truth: There would be more successful female comedians if the press cared to look for them. We need reviewers and writers to pay more attention to the women. The Chicago media has a big influence on the entertainment industry. They know Chicago is a hot bed of talent. When men like TJ [Jagadowski] and Dave [Pasquesi] are written about, they get movie auditions and requests for auditions on major network shows. The Sun-Times (with the exception of Bill Zwecker) never writes about our shows. I know they have fallen on hard times and can't afford reviewers, but they always manage to review Second City. I don't want to sound bitter, so let me say, I am glad they review Second City, as those are all my alumni. But those women have rarely seen their name in the press until they got to E.T.C. or the mainstage. As an example of what I am trying to say, let's look at the women I've mentioned above. Children of a Lesser God has never been reviewed by the Tribune (though Nina Metz keeps up with Chicago talent) or the Sun-Times but has been reviewed by the Reader and TimeOut. Holly and Jet have been on the Reckoning for 12 years and have only been covered in the Reader and TimeOut. This is a battle I've been fighting for years with the mainstream press.

69d8/1247865354-annelibera_edited.jpgANNE LIBERA, 44
Artistic Associate, Second City Training Centers; Resident Director, Second City
Years in the biz: 22

1. Why did you pursue a career in the comedy business? I didn't pursue it. I fell into it. I planned to do serious theater and got a job to make ends meet in the Second City box office. At the time, if you worked there, you could take classes for free. Then I got hooked. It was a two-step process. First, I got hooked by the process of improvisation—the collaboration, the moment-to-moment nature of it. Then it was the realization that comedy is essentially math and logic. I have never been a naturally funny person, but I'm very good at logic puzzles, etc., and I realized that I could apply that skill and create good comedy as a writer and director.

A joke functions like an equation: when it works, both sides are different but equally true and of roughly the same weight. I'll use an old Tina Fey joke from her "Weekend Udate" (SNL) days as an example. This is the first side of the equation: "The singer Tom Jones performed at the recent wedding of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas." This is the other side of the equation: "It was an ideal choice because, like the bride, he is Welsh, and like the groom, he is old and creepy"—equally true but with added variables. The most common variables you can add are pain—in the form of insult or the exposure of a vulnerability, or just pure gross out—and incongruity, like adding something that is completely out of place and/or inappropriate. In the joke above, we have insult, a touch of gross out, and a bit of inappropriateness. It works with any joke or one-liner. I often do an exercise with students where I simply have them create joke equations without worrying if the jokes are funny. It is amazing how many of the 'fake' jokes work.

2. What challenges have you observed for female performers? 1) The dominant culture is male, which means that women generally get men's jokes but men don't always get women's jokes. It's the same issue where girls will read books about boys but generally boys don't read books about girls. 2) At root, most comedy is about causing or exposing some level of pain or discomfort. Women in our society are socialized to not do either of those things overtly. 3) Another major element of most comedy is playing with power and status—it is relatively recent for women to have power and status in our society to play with, and we're still pretty uncomfortable with it (see Sotomayor, Sarah Palin, Hilary Clinton). It's not to say that women can't play with power and status—Tina [Fey] and Amy [Pohler] did well with Sarah and Hilary—but it is a minefield.

3. Why don't more women become comedians? It is a hard field, for anyone really—man or woman. It is really competitive, and women are under more scrutiny because there are fewer of them. There are also markedly fewer jobs for female comedy writers. Most writing staffs have one token girl (even the fictional writing staff on 30 Rock is largely male). There are also fewer rewards for female comedians. With less opportunity comes less money. Being funny is widely acknowledged as an attractive quality in men. There has been research on this—women look for men who are funny; men generally look for women who will laugh at their jokes, not make them. One of the things about the Christopher Hitchens piece [Why Women Aren't Funny, Vanity Fair, 2007] that struck me was this: what he was really saying was less that women aren't funny and more that he doesn't find funny women attractive.

078f/1247864675-jenniferestlin.jpgJENNIFER ESTLIN, 44
President/Executive Producer, Annoyance Theatre
Years in the biz: 22

1. Why did you pursue a career in the comedy business? I can't really say I've pursued a career in comedy; I've pursued a career in acting and theater because it was what I was most interested in since high school. In 1988 that pursuit led me to working with the Annoyance when I was cast in Splatter Theatre II. Over the years I became more involved with the Annoyance (and its founder, Mick Napier, who has been my significant other for 14 years). I have always enjoyed both the business and the creative aspect of theatre.

2. What challenges have you observed for female performers? It seems the challenge that is most often spoken of by women in the improv world is that of being pigeonholed as a wife or mother in a scene. But I think there are different ways of responding to that challenge. Some women become crippled by it, and others find that if they play strong characters and hold onto their point of vieweven if as a mother or wifethey are not held back by the stereotype. I think there is incredible opportunity in comedy and improvisation for women; strong, reliable women performers are always being sought after.

3. Why don't more women become comedians? I don't know. It certainly takes a thick skin, and I suppose there's the possibility that women are more often brought up to be more sensitive than their male counterparts. Or maybe women are too smart to choose such a risky career.

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